The Question of Kids

THE MOST DIFFICULT question we get on the Sociopath Comments page and in private emails is about kids. The question comes in several forms:
  • One parent realizes the other parent is a sociopath, but they already have kids together. What should they do?

  • You think your child is a sociopath. What do you do?

  • A woman just wrote to me to say one of her siblings is a sociopath, and has several children. She can't "get the sociopath out of her life" without abandoning those kids. What should she do?
This is the most difficult issue about sociopaths — what to do when kids are involved. For the most part, the answer is: This is something each person has to decide for herself. In the case of the woman with the sociopath sibling: Will she sacrifice her potentially enjoyable life long enough to see those kids to adulthood? To have a relationship with the kids, she will have to deal with her sociopathic sibling, which will benefit the kids, but increase the suffering she will have to withstand in her own life. But the alternative is abandoning the kids to the sociopath. It's a tough choice, and the kind of moral dilemma nobody can answer but the person needing to make the choice.

My advice to her was to do what she feels is the right thing, and if that is to help save those kids, then she should learn all she can about sociopaths and how to deal with them. I suggested she start by reading ALL the comments on the comments page.

And in all situations involving kids, gaining more information is always a good idea. Know what you're dealing with, and learn it now because you'll be dealing with this for quite awhile.

A therapist who specializes in the treatment of the victims of sociopaths has a good suggestion for people worried about the kids and looking for support. She says if there is any "addiction or heavy using in the picture (anywhere in the family — not just by the sociopath), it's a way into the recovery program of Alanon, for friends and family of Alcoholics or addicts and I think that fundamentally, many of the people that go there due to the disease of addiction are also dealing with personality disorders and don't know it. Anyway, the program serves as a great support for many people who are having concerns about someone else who has problems...Alanon is everywhere. It's free and extremely helpful..."

What if Your Own Child is a Sociopath?

A commenter named "Bell" has given several good answers to inquiries about children. Someone asked what she can do with her own child that she thought was a sociopath. I think that was the question (the asker deleted her question). But Bell's answer is very good:

I believe the best you can do for a young SP is to coach them on how to get by in life. Suggest appropriate careers, teach them to work with their condition and to police themselves, since they are the only one who can do it. They can't be changed, they are a lost cause, so work with what you have; e.g., using their own twisted logic, explain how kindness to others benefits THEM. They need to be TAUGHT that you reap what you sow, since they cannot see the obvious and don't care about consequences or learn from mistakes. They even need to be TAUGHT what I just said in the last sentence. Impress the importance of how good the golden rule is good for THEM. People, ALL people, are objects to be used ... so teach them to take care of their things.

I hope to collect more good answers over time to questions concerning children and sociopaths. Right now good answers and advice are pretty scarce, and horror stories abound.

Many people have asked me for a recommendation for a therapist for a child they worry is a sociopath. I don't have any recommendations about where to find that kind of therapist, but I think Martha Stout probably knows (author of "The Sociopath Next Door"). You can contact her here:

or here:

Dr. Martha Stout
82 Marlborough Street
Boston, MA 02116 USA

I would be interested in what her answer is. If you would write me back the answer, I will post it on the comments page, because others probably want to know too.

Here is some information from Scientific American Mind that may be relevant to the issue of children:

In the September/October 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind is an article entitled, Inside the Mind of a Psychopath. Among other things, the researchers wrote, "Aided by EEGs and brain scans, scientists have discovered that psychopaths possess significant impairments that affect their ability to feel emotions, read other people's cues and learn from their mistakes.

These deficiencies my be apparent in children who are as young as five years old.

When you tally trials, prison stays and inflicted damage, psychopaths cost us $250 billion to $400 billion a year.

The researchers wrote:

Charming as they may seem, psychopaths can also be tone-deaf because they lack access to their own feelings and those of others. Imagine what it would be like never to be depressed or anxious, never to have regrets or low self-esteem but also never to care deeply for anyone or anything. Psychopaths' emotions are shallow: they feel irritated when they don't get their way and turn to risky behaviors for the flimsiest of reasons. Bereft of loyalties and passions, they wander through life, often straying into criminality on a whim — forgeries, thefts, assaults, even murders may be committed out of some trivial impulse. As for complex emotions such as devotion, guilt, or joy, theirs remains a textbook understanding — it has been said that they "know the words but not the music."

Dozens of studies reveal that psychopaths experience the world differently from other people. They have trouble making appropriate moral value judgments and putting the brakes on their impulses. They are also hampered in how they respond to emotions, language and distractions — a disconnect that is sometimes seen as early as age five.

Psychopaths are notable for their fearlessness: when confronted with images such as a looming attacker or a weapon aimed their way, they literally don't blink.

Chances are, you have met a psychopath. People with the disorder make up 0.5 to 1 percent of the general population. When you discount children, women (for reasons that remain a puzzle, few women are afflicted), and those who are already locked up, that translates to approximately 250,000 psychopaths living freely in the U.S.

Some researchers have estimated that as many as 500,000 psychopaths inhabit the U.S. prison system, and there may be another 250,000 more living freely — perhaps not committing serious crimes but still taking advantage of those around them.

Whatever the reasons, many psychiatrists are left with the false impression that psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder are the same. They are not. Antisocial personality disorder is a helpful diagnosis when the question is whether a person is likely to behave badly, but it does nothing to discriminate among criminals. Only one in five people with antisocial personality disorder is a psychopath.

In a collective throwing up of hands, psychiatrists have long written psychopaths off as beyond help. But now that science is unraveling the mechanisms behind the disorder, it’s time for that attitude to change. If specific physiological deficits prevent psychopaths from empathizing with others, forming stable relationships and learning from their mistakes, then elucidating them could lead to new treatments: medications, perhaps, or targeted behavioral strategies.

Kiehl has launched an ambitious multimillion-dollar project—funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) and Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation—to gather genetic information, brain images and case histories from 1,000 psychopaths and compile it all into a searchable database.

The above was written by Kent A. Kiehl, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico, and Joshua W. Buckholtz, a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Vanderbilt University.

Contact them here:

Kent A. Kiehl

Joshua W. Buckholtz

I'm disallowing comments on this post because I want to encourage all comments to go to the main comments page. Please leave a comment, question, advice, answers, or whatever here: The Sociopath Comments page. Lots of people have already subscribed to the comments on that post. It is functioning like a support group, and I'd like to keep the conversation in one place.